It is always an honor to be asked to judge Best in Show, and I thoroughly enjoy it, but to be honest, this is often the easiest assignment at a show. No matter the size of the show, once you get to the final seven, they are almost always high-quality dogs.
So, if this is the easiest “class” at the show, what is the most difficult?
That’s easy – Junior Showmanship!
I have judged Junior Showmanship many times over the years, and I am often amazed at how excellent many of these young people are. As most of you know, Junior Showmanship is for young people between the ages of nine and 18. As described by the AKC, this program is designed for the youth in our community to “learn basic handling abilities, and how to care for, and present, different breeds in a competition. While Juniors are judged by an official AKC Judge, it’s the quality of their presentation that is judged, not the dog.” As I get older, I am more inclined to ask some of them to show my dog for me. I know most could do a better job than I can.
As the AKC says, “Participating in Junior Showmanship will teach your child many important life lessons — how to be a good sport, how to put one’s mind to something and master it, and how training can lead to a very special bond with a dog. And who knows? Your kid just might love Junior Showmanship so much it might eventually lead to a possible career path!”
But for me, Junior Showmanship is much more than that. I almost always tell every Juniors class that I judge the same thing: “You are here for three reasons: One is to have fun, two is to work on the relationship with your dog, and three is to show us what you have learned.”
I am concerned that I don’t always see these things. I hate to see a child in the ring who looks imploringly outside the ring (apparently for his or her parents), and appears to be there only because of parental pressure. You are not forced to enter and show your dog – why should your child be required to do so? All this does is build up resentment that may result in the opposite effect than you were hoping for. Give him guidance and support, and hope for his enthusiasm, but forcing a child to do this is absolutely the wrong thing to do.
Junior Showmanship – as with most aspects of our community – can be a valuable learning experience. What are you teaching your child? Are you the role model you want for your kids? When your kids think of fairness and integrity, they should think of you. Do they? Do you show the type of sportsmanship that you want your child to learn? Is your child being taught that it is OK to color the dog’s nose or to dye the coat? Are you teaching personal responsibility? Do you pick up the armband for your child? That’s a no-no for me. Does the Junior work with the dog, or is the “Junior’s dog” a wind-up toy? That doesn’t allow the youngster the opportunity to show handling ability.
However, as another friend reminded me, “There are Juniors who work very hard with their dog to build that bond and perfect their stack. If it appears their dog is a wind-up toy, maybe it's due to all their effort.” So, a judge has to walk a fine line when considering this. She also pointed out, “Junior Showmanship has helped many people become friends for life. I love seeing these professionals enjoying and supporting each other just like they did in Juniors.”
Let’s look at the Junior Showmanship judge. The AKC says, “The judging of Junior Showmanship carries with it a responsibility to the future of the fancy combined with a desire to interact with our youngsters. Conformation JS judges must possess the knowledge of how all breeds should be presented in the ring.” That is an apt description as far as it goes. There should be three more requirements:
Safety. This is the most important aspect to consider in judging Juniors. Many times, a youngster will come in the ring with a dog that is actually too big or too strong for the child to control. What is the judge’s responsibility? Keep an eye on this team and constantly assess whether it is a possible (unintentional) threat to others or to the young handler. If the child can gain and maintain control over this bigger dog, that should be recognized and rewarded. If there appears to be danger, I would call the parent(s) over and explain that I don’t think this is a safe situation and I would rather have the child not stay in the ring so that everyone involved has a good and safe experience. Also, if the judge chooses to place the Juniors in the order of placement before awarding the placements, do not move them as a group if there are bigger dogs behind smaller ones.
Understanding. We all know that Junior Showmanship is judging the handler and not the dog, but how are we to determine the handling ability of a child who has a “wind-up” dog? (Note: The definition of a wind-up dog is one that even I could show perfectly). We certainly want all the dogs to be under control, and if there is a Junior who maintains her cool and gets a somewhat naughty dog to show, that should be rewarded. Ultimately, that is good handling.
Finally, the judge should make this a good experience for handler and dog. The judge should enjoy judging Juniors, and often, provide good teaching feedback after the judging. (Many Juniors come back and ask how they can improve – don’t just blow them off with general comments.) If you don’t want to judge Juniors, Don’t Do It! It is too important to the growth of our community and to each individual Junior. Don’t accept the Juniors assignment, and have AKC remove Junior Showmanship from what you are approved to judge. A nasty Junior Showmanship judge (yes, I have seen them) can make this a miserable experience and drive the Junior away from our community.
I remember the time the young daughter of a friend exhibited in Juniors for the very first time. The judge was a miserable S.O.B. who yelled at this first-timer for not doing everything correctly. The young girl came out of the ring in tears, crying that she would never show a dog again. Her mother – and Shelly and I – comforted her, and promised her that all judges were not like that. This brave young girl agreed to give it one more try the next day. Thankfully, this Juniors judge was friendlier and more considerate of the youngsters, and gave clear, simple, understandable directions. Well, the dog-show gods were watching, and our young friend won her class. Her smile as she came out of the ring could have lit up a city. (By the way, yes, I did go talk to the first judge, telling her what I thought of her and that she should give up judging PERIOD! I dared her to call the AKC rep to report me so that we could also report her actions with the Juniors. Of course, she did not.)
What are just a few of the things a Juniors judge should be looking for? Does the handler of a Flat-Coated Retriever or a Cairn Terrier move their dog on a loose lead? Does the Collie handler walk the dog into the “stack”? Where does the Junior place her hands when stacking the dog on the table, ground or ramp? How does she move the dog’s legs into place? For me, I also listen: I really like it when I hear the Junior talking – praising – her dog.
We all mouth the words, “Juniors are the future of our sport.” Actually, it is much more than that – especially in today’s confusing, ever-changing world. Whether or not these young people continue in our community or not, Junior Showmanship can teach them much more. I have seen a young girl who was so shy that she could barely look an adult in the face, and after competing (and not always winning) in Juniors, her confidence grew immensely, and she is now a secure, proud young woman.
I think Juniors competition is more difficult for a young boy than for a girl, because boys are more easily embarrassed at this age (and their masculinity is challenged), and are less agile in their movements, but it is a great learning experience for them. There is a young man who I judged in Juniors many times over the years, and he stewarded for me at my most recent assignment. I got the chance to speak with him about his future plans, and was pleased at how mature his answers – and his plans – are. I am sure he will succeed in life, and maybe – just maybe – showing in Juniors had a very small part in helping him during his formative years. Good luck, young man. We are all proud of you.
This article cannot end until I share some great remarks shared with me by a good friend who was a Junior, has a daughter who was a very successful Junior, and both are now judges of Junior Showmanship. “In most sports, it is very obvious who the winner is. Not so in showing dogs, since it is very subjective. So it is very important that judges know the rules of Junior Showmanship – because the kids do. The Junior should not set her dog up until the judge tells her to do so (so we can watch how she does it). There was a class where all the Juniors waited to be told to do this – except for one. She immediately set her dog up. The judge told the class that this girl was the winner because when the judge turned around the girl already had her dog set up. The Juniors knew this was wrong. When a judge does not know and follow the rules, it makes the others very disillusioned, because they look at the Juniors judge as representing AKC and adulthood, and this judge just showed them that it was not important to follow the rules. Or how about the judge who said to a girl who was being awarded third in her Juniors class, ‘If you want to be successful showing dogs you have to get a better Pekingese.’ Unfortunately, the dog was a National Specialty winner, group-winning Tibetan Spaniel.” Judges not only represent the AKC, we represent adulthood. When we don't do things right, we are saying we don't care – so why should they?
My friend also reminded me that Juniors are at an age where they are growing in every way imaginable: physically, mentally and emotionally. We help to shape them, so what we do is extremely important – it is not just another way to get a judging assignment.
And parents … don’t jump on your child when she first leaves the ring. There is a lot to remember about showing dogs. Give your child positive, reinforcing feedback. Maybe later, on the drive home, you might mention trying a loose lead, or watching the judge better, etc. Junior Showmanship is not just something to do … it is important.
What do you think?